On Friday, March 13, 2020, our lives changed forever in Saint Lucia. What we had all been anticipating with a great deal of dread happened – we received confirmation that Saint Lucia had its first case of COVID-19.
In that short instant when the chief medical officer (CMO) made the announcement at the press conference, we learned that this horror movie had decided to play out one of its scenes in our country. Everything must and will change in our country for the foreseeable future. So, here is my two cents (a coin that no longer exists in our money supply) worth of opinion on what we should do next.
The prime minister should invite the opposition parliamentarians to a meeting, immediately following this afternoon’s extraordinary meeting of the cabinet, to fully brief them on the steps the government will be taking to deal with this elevated level of threat to Saint Lucia. Then, in his address to the nation on Monday evening, the prime minister should be accompanied by the leader of the opposition, who should also be invited to deliver a short address with the prime minister.
The message delivered by the two leaders should be one calling on Saint Lucians to remain calm, to work together, to heed the advice of the medical professionals, to desist from spreading false information and to display the spirit of koudmen and community togetherness that in the past defined us as a people. From today we must be our brother’s and sister’s keepers, including keeping our brothers and sisters from getting sick from COVID-19.
The government should send a strong warning to the private sector to resist any temptation to engage in price gouging and it should indicate that henceforth, certain essential items will be put under price control to prevent exploitation of the consumers. The government should also encourage the supermarkets to place a limit on the quantities of essential items that can be purchased by anyone individual in order to prevent the unfortunate situation that is developing of people with financial means hoarding basic supplies like toilet paper, cereals and hand sanitizer.
The government should consider temporarily closing Saint Lucia’s borders to cruise ships and yachts. The cruise ship season is coming to the end of its peak period and right now, the safety of our citizens is of paramount importance. It is too difficult to monitor the movements of transient visitors who spend less than eight hours on our island, but who come into contact with scores of Saint Lucians during their brief stay on the island.
I understand the massive economic impact of this decision; my family has made its living in the tourism industry and I know better than most the number of people who depend on the cruise sector for a living. However, right now, the health risk to our citizens is too great. At the very least, limit the ports through which yachts can be cleared for entry to one seaport.
Serious consideration should be given to prohibiting the entry of people at our airports from countries, particularly those in Europe (including the United Kingdom) where the disease is rapidly spreading. Whichever decision is taken with respect to our borders, the support services at our air and seaports need to be dramatically strengthened, with every effort made to protect the health and safety of the public officers who work at our ports of entry.
These decisions will have serious economic consequences. Therefore, the prime minister should convene a task force of persons, inside and outside of the public service, to quantify the economic implications of the impact of COVID-19 and the consequential downturn in our economy.
Moreover, responding adequately to COVID-19 will drain our financial resources. This task force should provide the prime minister and his cabinet with the empirical evidence it will need to make a case to the international financial institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) for emergency financial support and a moratorium on debt repayments for the next 12 months.
The magnitude of the task of managing our health services during this crisis will overwhelm the CMO. The government should establish a command center, populated with some of our experienced medical professionals (doctors and nurses) who will provide support to the CMO and will assist the government with both the immediate and longer-term decision making that will be required to help us deal with this crisis. The activation of a 311 Call Center to respond to queries on COVID-19 is a step in the right direction. This should be a bilingual hotline. The government must make all relevant information readily available to the public. This will help to minimize the speculation and the rumour spreading.
The Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Commission should establish a high-level, confidential information clearinghouse among the ministries of health and the port authorities of the Member States of the OECS for the sharing of information on COVID-19, including the identity of persons who have been tested and confirmed to have COVID-19.
We should not have a repeat of the situation that we just had in Saint Lucia with case one, where the individual visited Grenada prior to coming to Saint Lucia, but the Grenadian authorities found out about the COVID-19 confirmation after the CMO in Saint Lucia had informed the local press in Saint Lucia. Given the frequent travel among our countries, confidential information on patients being tested and confirmed should be shared with the CMO and the chief immigration officer in our sister countries in the OECS and CARICOM immediately we find out that the person in question visited other Caribbean countries before coming to Saint Lucia.
The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (CDB) should work with the banks in the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union (ECCU) to agree on a period during which arrangements will be put in place to provide a cushion to persons who, because of the inevitable economic slowdown, will not be able to meet their loan repayments over the next six to eight months. Banks cannot expect people who are no longer able to earn a living to be able to service their debts with the same regularity as before.
Our diplomatic allies Taiwan and Cuba should also be enlisted to help. Taiwan has done an exemplary job of containing COVID-19 and minimizing the number of deaths from the virus. We need to learn from what they did and solicit their help in strengthening our health and social protocols. Similarly, the government of Cuba has time and again demonstrated the capacity to deal with infectious diseases and to assist its allies in fighting the spread of diseases like Ebola and treating those who fall sick. We should ask our Cuban friends for help.
Finally, as I said earlier, our lives changed yesterday. Every single one of us is now vulnerable. Those of us, like me, with elderly parents or relatives, have to confront the fact that there is an over 15 percent chance that our loved one will die if they contract this disease. This disease, COVID-19, does not care which party you support, at which church you worship, where you live, how much money you make, or how dark or light-skinned you are. It will victimize you if it gets into you or your family.
The only thing between us and the devastating impacts we have seen in Wuhan, China and Italy is how well we work together, how efficiently we use all of our resources, how decisive and consistent we are with our decision-making and how faithful we are to the advice that we have been given, particularly with respect to personal hygiene, social distancing and self-isolation.
I hope the government will put all political differences aside and make optimum use of all the human resources on our island to fight this disease. I also hope that the opposition and its supporters will set aside their problems with the administration and pledge to do all within their power to cooperate with the government.
This is not the time for one-upmanship, for scoring political points, for partisanship, or for political bickering. Let us show that we are bigger than all that; and when we can and need to, we can rise above the pettiness of partisan politics and work in the interest of all Saint Lucians. Let us put #SaintLuciaFirst.
Dr Jimmy Fletcher
Managing Director, Soloricon